Luke Davis has prosopagnosia, commonly known as “face blindness”. So don’t take offense if he doesn’t recognize you.
In a world full of strangers
There is nothing else to do but make friends
If you can’t remember your enemies
There is no one to fear
If you forget what your friends look like
You get to see what makes them stand out every time you meet.
Imagine you go to work one day and you can only recognize 10 of the people that are your closest colleagues. Imagine that you think another few look familiar but you couldn’t say with more than 80% certainty. The rest of the people you work with have become complete strangers. You don’t know who they are, how long they have been working for the company, whether they have worked there for a day, a year or 5 years.
How would you feel? Possibly you would feel like you did on your very first day in the job. Would it be a little weird if you passed one of these people you don’t recognize and they greeted you by name, knew about your car breaking down, or the birth of your son? How do you think they would feel if you didn’t say hello when they walked past? How would they feel if you didn’t ask about their sick mother? You do know these people and you have had conversations with them, you just don’t recognize them anymore. Would they think you were cold and aloof, distant, would they think you were purposely snubbing them?
I have prosopagnosia and this happened to me today and yesterday and every day before that since I can remember. For those of you unfamiliar with prosopagnosia—also called face blindness—my basic ability to recognize a face is compromised. I am not blind to faces; I can see your face perfectly clearly. What I can’t do is remember your face so I can recognize it later. If I don’t see you regularly, then chances are I won’t recognize you.
With most people there are two areas in the brain dealing with recognition. One area is for the recognition of objects, such as your cup, your car, your house and anything else you own or have a regular need to distinguish from similar other objects. This area is fairly slow and works by looking for details on an object that make it different from something similar. The second area recognizes faces. It does this in a holistic, whole-of-the-face approach and is very quick. In a prosopagnosiac, this area dealing in facial recognition doesn’t work the way it should. We recognize you by what makes you different from other people but not by your face. Your faces are all mostly the same.
I’m 38 and it was only last year that I found out that I had prosopagnosia. You would think that I would have realized this earlier, but that is not the case. I don’t have the benefit of seeing someone else’s perspective of the world. For me this is normal and I have always assumed other people are just better at recognizing people—the way someone else might be taller, or stronger or better looking. The signs have always been there I just hadn’t put them together until recently.
My parents knew something was not quite right in my first year of school. I was sent to a doctor for a yearlong battery of tests. They tested me for color blindness, autism, IQ, social interaction, ethics, agility and many others until I was sick to death of the tests. Back in the early 80’s face blindness wasn’t a recognized medical problem except in those who suffered trauma to the head. I passed every test I took. My parents were told that all was clear, nothing was wrong with me. The one test that would have indicated there was something wrong with me didn’t exist back then.
I also knew I had quirks other people didn’t seem to have. I couldn’t identify bullies if they weren’t in my class. I have been universally bad with names. Now I realize it was the faces I had trouble with and not the names. If I enter a crowded room with people I have met only a few times before then it is like walking into a room full of strangers. If someone pulls their hair back, or wears a cap, I struggle to recognize them. When I go shopping or out and about, I never see people I know. They see me.
Normal people can find a group of friends they are supposed to meet in a restaurant or a bar. I would sometimes end up going home disappointed with my evening because I couldn’t find them. Normal people don’t seem to have a problem recognizing colleagues outside of work. Normal people always seem to be waving or saying hello to people they know when they go out. Normal people can watch a movie and not lose track of who the characters are. Normal people can look at old photos and know who is in them.
Prosopagnosia isn’t curable but at least now I can put a name to the problems I have. It is not the end of the world; I don’t suffer a disfiguring disease or it’s not fatal, and prosopagnosia doesn’t “define” me. Largely I don’t notice I have prosopagnosia because to me this is no different from yesterday. Over the years I have subconsciously developed a lot of coping mechanisms to deal with this. I am fairly good with voices, mostly by the time someone has said “hello” I will know who they are. If I meet someone in a place I expect them to be my brain is able to join the dots. I am pretty good at winging conversations until I can work out who someone is. When I see someone nod or even show the possibility that they recognize me I will say hello. It makes me come across as affable to a lot of strangers but for me it avoids the risk that I don’t recognize them and they take offence. People I see regularly I don’t have too many problems with because my object recognition area must be fairly good. The same way you recognize your car in a car park is how I recognize people I know. It just takes me longer then you.
When I asked you to imagine what it was like I hope at least a few of you can take this information on board. Remember that not everyone has the same skill in recognizing faces that you do. If you pass someone on the street that should recognize you but doesn’t, rather than be offended, simply say hello, and give them the benefit of the doubt. If you are in a crowded function and someone you know enters, pauses for a few minutes scanning the room, then heads for the bar without greeting anyone—walk up to them and say hello. If they are a prosopagnosiac, then people who are dressed up in clothes they don’t normally wear, with extra makeup on and in a low light room become very hard to recognize even with coping mechanisms. To us, we have quite literally walked into a room full of strangers.
If you think you know someone who has face blindness or always has trouble recognizing you then make an effort to insert your name into the conversation when you greet them. You do it on the phone because you know the person on the other end can’t see you. It’s the same thing for someone who has face blindness. If you forget to say your name and we are winging the conversation than just throw a couple of extra clues as to who you are. We aren’t blind, we do remember past events and conversations, it’s just that it takes us a little extra time to fit the stranger standing in front of us to the people in our memories.
Most of all—please don’t be offended that we didn’t recognize you. The hardest people for us to recognize are beautiful and handsome people.
photo: joeshlabotnik / flickr